Hollywood Character Arcs ~ The Searchers

The Searchers
Released March 13, 1956
Warner Bros.
119 minutes

Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent & Alan Le May, from the Alan Le May novel
Director: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood
Adding Character: Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Ken Curtis, John Qualen, Henry Brandon, Harry Carey, Jr., Hank Worden, Olive Carey


Schools of thought governing Westerns can usually be narrowed down to two: (1) Westerns are films that display simpleminded, plot-driven, thin stories used as vehicles to glorify a white-hat-wearing cowboy, who is good because the script loudly dictates it. (2) Westerns are character-driven chronicles that, out of all film genres, best explore the depths of the human condition due to their stripped-down nature.

Both schools are valid—there are a lot of bad, bad Westerns out there—but because of the nature of the first school, it is difficult to prove to those who subscribe to it that the second one exists. For members of the second school, John Ford’s The Searchers may be the best tool available to shift paradigms and maybe even win friends. The primary reason for the ability of The Searchers to sway even the most cynical Westerns “hater” is not John Ford—who, by 1956, had been directing films for 39 years, and who had given us, to name just a very, very (very) few, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), They Were Expendable (1945), and The Quiet Man (1952)—as well as several quality Westerns that aren’t offered as evidence of the excellence of John Ford while trying to convince of the virtues of The Searchers, for that argument would be circular.

It is the character of Ethan Edwards, one of the title’s searchers, portrayed to robbed-of-an-Oscar® perfection by John Wayne, who provides the shades of paint for Ford to use in The Searchers to make it a masterpiece. Granted, there is an equally die-hard contingent as those who dislike Westerns who find putting John Wayne and acting in the same sentence dubious. They may even believe, without knowing much about his career, that he’s the white-hat-wearing cowboy in those thin Westerns, who wins all the time and gets no dirt on his pants in the process. Wayne’s career is a debate for a different post, but looking at his work in this film, it is safe to say the Wayne doubters are wrong. If the character of Ethan Edwards weren’t drawn—and played—so well, The Searchers would be just another Western. Not a thin one, but not a great one either.

In Ethan Edwards, Wayne gives us a dark loner with racist leanings. Ethan is mistrustful of indigenous peoples and makes no attempt to hide it. But rather than offend us by presenting Ethan as one who is put upon because he must tolerate sharing the planet with people he doesn’t like—and who aren’t like he is—Ford, as early as the first scene, gives us a sympathetic antithesis to Ethan in the form of Jeffrey Hunter, as Ethan’s adopted nephew, Martin, who is one-eighth Cherokee. The juxtaposition—charming, harmless, and proud-of-his-heritage Martin versus a vagabond, disconnected, and disgruntled Ethan—tells us right away that Ethan’s world view is the one that is suspect.

Although it feels good to watch The Searchers, it is not a feel-good film. That last truth means Ford doesn’t subject us to sugar-coated epiphanies by Ethan Edwards that turn his prejudices into minor lapses in judgment quickly corrected by the script. On the contrary, Ethan remains steadfast in his beliefs that indigenous peoples have no business mixing with whites, and this consistency and the willingness of Wayne and Ford to allow Ethan to be so easy to disagree with are what make him such a well-drawn character.

In real life, it can take years for one’s paradigm on any issue to shift. Dogs versus cats. East Coast versus West Coast. Private or public school. Democratic or Republican. Immigration. Healthcare. Abortion. Religion. Affirmative action. Gun control. It often requires a delicate, perfect, and ripe set of circumstances—with a heavy dose of happenstance thrown in—to create a major shift in one’s beliefs. In The Searchers, Ford takes not a sledgehammer to Ethan’s views, in an attempt to demolish them. Nor does he use a scalpel to carefully slice away the unappealing parts of Ethan’s character so that he can refit him with a big white hat. Instead, Ford uses a very dull chisel to chip away at Ethan’s outlook. It proves to be a clunky tool. It knocks away a few ugly corners, but it also bumps into stone too hard to be removed.

The less than ideal tool makes the journey much richer. While conducting the search the film’s title references, Ethan is challenged by circumstances, criminal minds determined to thwart him, time, and his own short-sightedness. Key is that Martin, his one-eighth Cherokee adopted nephew, is the primary other searcher of the title. They’re looking for a kidnap victim, to whom they’re both related and who was taken by someone who plays right into Ethan’s beliefs. On the one hand, Ethan feels he’s been saddled with an interloper who won’t keep his place. Martin isn’t simply along for the ride. He’s riding for his own reasons and figures he might as well travel with Ethan as he does so. He refuses to go away or even ride half a horse length behind Ethan. On the other hand, the search lasts five hard years. The ensuing familiarity of two-man campouts, cold winters, investigation, trading for questionable information, and crouching on the same side of several shootouts breeds…respect.

No spoilers, but Ford shows in the tiniest of gestures—a hand placed on a shoulder, an attempt by Ethan to secure Martin’s financial future, respect for a Comanche woman the two searchers encounter on the road who is later found dead—that as time and the men march on, it gets harder for Ethan to hold fast to his narrow views. We see this not just in Ethan’s relationship with Martin. The change in Ethan’s micro attitude about Martin creates a macro transformation in his approach to the search and who he is willing to partner with, how he feels about the kidnap victim, and even the reason he exacts retribution on the guilty. It becomes much less about who they are and far more about what they did.

And just as how, in real life, the makings of change are often present all along, waiting to be tapped, we learn in the first scene that it was Ethan who rescued Martin as a baby, all the while aware of his Cherokee heritage, and who deposited him with his brother and sister-in-law, to become the oldest of their children. This is made more significant by the fact that there appears to be an unspoken history between Ethan and his sister-in-law, Martha. We feel that it is no coincidence that out of all the places Ethan could have left an orphaned Cherokee baby, he chose the house of a woman for whom he cared deeply. It is this soupçon of goodness, this tenderness coming from a big, stubborn, prejudiced man, that forms the realistic foundation for Ethan’s slow metamorphosis and helps makes the case for why Ethan Edwards is one of the best-drawn characters in film history.

The film opens with a freewheeling Martin dismounting an unsaddled horse he never pulls to a full stop and strolling through a doorway in the dark shadows of the eaves of the house where he lives with his adopted family. Inside the house is a hostile Ethan. Martin’s walk into the dark foreshadows his five-year mission with Ethan. The film ends with a different character leaving the dark doorway of a different house and heading into the bright hot sunlight. It provides the perfect metaphor for the long, uneasy trek into enlightenment experienced by Ethan, several supporting characters, and maybe even John Ford himself. EL

The Searchers / The Wild Bunch / How the West Was Won Blu-ray™ triple feature available here.

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